I just watched Roger Federer beat Novak Djokovic convincingly, even on a day when Djokovic was good—excellent, even. Each set went to seven games for the winner (7-6, 7-5, 7-5), which just goes to show how little separates the excellent from the sublime. Djokovic managed to win 16 games to Federer's 21. If you set aside tiebreakers and advantages, that's a difference of only 20 points, a tiny margin in tennis's bizarre scoring methodology (do you need any other evidence that the sport was invented—or at least popularized—by the French court during the Renaissance?). The shot that gave Federer match point against Djokovic was something we've come to expect from him, even as the physical reality still strikes us as amazing, impossible. To see Federer hit this between-the-legs revelation is to believe, for just a moment, in the awful perfection of great athletes. The shot is, literally, sublime. Its power lies in its almost ungraspable nature. To me, though, the real revelation is the slow-motion shot that shows Djokovic's reaction. He almost sheepishly wipes his mouth in slack-jawed appreciation and then turns for the baseline, the knowledge writ all over his face: I'm not going to win this match—even if I am at my best, and I am, there is no way for me to defeat or even come close to this man. The confidence and brilliance is what we've come to expect from Federer, and even though the game has lost some subtlety as players' serves have turned the style of play into a baselining affair, we know we can turn to him for the confidence we admire (and wish to emulate) in the greatest of athletes.
I thought Melanie Oudin displayed, if not the genius of Federer, at least the same tenacity and expectation of victory. Watching her third round defeat of Maria Sharpova (she knocked out, pretty much, most of the Russians in the tournament), I was struck by how much she seemed confident that she would win. Brash, even. She kept saying "Come on, come on!" whenever she made a mistake, as if defeating some of the best players in the world were simply a matter of stirring herself to her proper abilities. Her play isn't as beautiful or as awe-inducing as Federer's, but she's still young. I found myself riveted to her matches, mostly because I enjoyed watching an athlete for whom victory is the supposed nature of things.
Any endurance athlete battles with doubt, with demons that say it would be easy to stop, that someone is catching us. These two athletes remind us that things are easier up front, especially if you expect to be there. Leading gives you confidence, which makes you better. The chicken-egg question is developing that confidence. Some athletes are born with it, as Oudin seems to have been blessed, but others like Federer, who glide through matches as if on a cushion of grace, give us the sense that confidence can be mastered, like solving a puzzle a dark.
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